What’s in a word? Are you a “manager”?
Language is very powerful. The way we use words can be emotive and provocative. We unconsciously or deliberately choose a word because of its connotation, its imagery or the meaning it can convey. We often assume that the person with whom we’re talking holds the same imagery and meaning. This is how communication works. Or not.
We all know, that when we’re told to not think of an elephant, we think about an elephant. But do we all have the same thought? We use our memory to build the thought of ‘elephant’ and, what you have in your head – along with all its associated memories, emotion and imagery, is likely not to be what I have…..
I think of five or six young elephants splashing around in a small lake in Thailand. You might be thinking of them in a zoo, a circus, or maybe a wildlife documentary…… In other words, we’re most likely sharing the same construct but not quite the same picture. Sharing the construct might be enough for some conversations but it leaves the emotion, imagery, and experiences in our minds. And it is these which colour our thoughts, and have a subtle influence on, quite literally, our frame of mind, and therefore our behaviour.
So – that word: “manager”. What does that bring up for you? What might be in that shared construct? We all have experience of “managers” that help us to recreate the construct, and an ‘understanding’ of the broader elements that also contribute to our overall picture.
If this were a discussion, we would be internally revising that construct until we came to a shared mental model of what a “manager” is. Now what is interesting is what might be in that pool of knowledge, learning and past experiences for us to draw on to create that mental model or construct. If you look up the definition of ‘manager’ there are one or two common elements: control, direct, in charge. This isn’t surprising, given that the role of manager emerged during the Industrial Revolution, enhanced and entrenched by Taylorism – a strand of management theory based on standardisation, clear division of tasks and responsibilities, boundaries and hierarchy of authority, and strict surveillance. And, of course, pay linked to performance.
A manager (n.) is one who manages (vb.). Consider the synonyms of manage: ‘be in charge of’, ‘govern’, ‘command’, ‘direct’, ‘control’, ‘oversee’, ‘supervise’…..and reflect on the emotional state these create within you. Other synonyms are ‘cope’, ‘make do’, ‘get by’…a manager is one who ‘copes’ – how exciting is that? In many organisations, the first line (or level of) managers are still referred to as “supervisors”, keeping that command-and-control element of the manager construct alive and well.
Now – let’s take a look at another word: “leader”. What’s in that construct? Curiously, just notice, how mentioning it has changed your mood. Has it lightened ever so slightly? Doing the same as above, we get common threads like conductor, guide, confidence, passion. To lead (vb) shares ‘to go before’, ‘escort’, ‘show the way’. Synonyms include ‘guide’, ‘steer’, ‘shepherd’.
The knowledge, learning and past experiences we draw on – those you are reflecting on right now, because I have presented you with the word – are different to those we use for “manager”. For most of you, your emotional state will be lighter, more energised, more excited holding the construct ‘leader’ than holding the construct ‘manager’.
It isn’t completely black and white, of course, but in general terms the emotions created by what we hold in the construct of leadership are much more positive, engaging and inspiring than those we hold in the construct of management.
In our current industrial and commercial – the Fourth Industrial Revolution, post pandemic – landscape we are daily told of burnout, of disengaged employees, quiet quitting, worsening mental health…particularly of managers. And we shouldn’t be surprised. As we’ve moved into the 21st Century, the constructs that were created in the 19th Century are no longer appropriate. Yet they persist…deeply rooted in our collective psyche, even though for some time now we have recognised the shift in the management role.
When successful, management is a role ‘in service of’ others, not directing and controlling others. As we have progressively moved from the siloed, functional, mechanical model of organisations to the more fluid ‘ecosystems’, successful management is seen to be much more relational, human to human. Now we are recognising the value of managers having supportive, inclusive relationship skill: trust, authenticity, vulnerability, transparency, self-awareness, self-management. The so called “soft skills” that are so essential.
So, here’s the challenge: what would it be like if you scrapped all your managers? How would it be for anyone with ‘manager’ in their title – including you – to change it to ‘leader. Shift their – and your – mind-set…stand in a different construct. Of course, there are still instances of where ‘managing’ is appropriate – for non-human resources – but when it involves people make them leaders. How different would they – and you – feel about themselves in relation to others? How much more engaged, and engaging could they/would they be?
If you’d like some support in making this happen, we can help (firstname.lastname@example.org). Leadership is as much a mind-set as it is a skill set:
“We’re all “bundles of potentiality” that only manifest in relationship”
Margaret Wheatley 2006